Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery, like at least two other surviving black burial grounds in Miami-Dade County, exemplifies a significant though little-known legacy of racial segregation. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended legal segregation in America, black and white people were separated not just in life, but in death, too.
The final resting place of Miami’s black pioneers: A forgotten cemetery in disrepair
July 27, 2018
In death, Miami’s black pioneers deserve the dignity denied them in lifeBy Leonard Pitts Jr.
Down a forgotten street in a forgotten neighborhood sits a forgotten place.
And no, that’s not entirely fair. The people who live and conduct business in Brownsville, who have loved ones interred at Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery, would likely protest that they have forgotten nothing.
It’s a fair point.
But so is this. In the condo towers downtown where construction cranes perch like giant metallic grasshoppers, on the sparkling bay where motorboats and Jet Skis duel incoming waves, down the tony streets of Coral Gables where the elite meet to eat and drink as breezes serenade the palm fronds, in all the showcase places that signify in the public mind all that Miami is, one would likely be hard pressed to find anyone who knows anything about this broken-down graveyard signifying all that Miami was.
Meaning, a segregated Southern town where black people lived and moved largely unseen, and where the racial mores of the Jim Crow era were enforced by the law, the fist and the gun.
Lincoln is the final resting place for an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 African Americans, lynching victims and millionaires alike, pressed together in the equality of their legal inequality. Nearly a hundred years after its first burials, the graveyard is a misbegotten jumble of tombs, the names of occupants scrubbed away by years of sun and storm.
So closely are the stone boxes pressed together that two recent burials required a forklift and crane to situate the new tombs. So tightly are they jammed in that there is virtually no way to walk between them; a visitor must walk on top of them instead. Weeds stand tall, and the place is ringed about by a perimeter of detritus — the box from a 12-pack of Coke, a kitty litter bag, an empty cigar packet.
Which only adds to the impression that this is a forgotten place.
But beginning Aug. 3, the Coral Gables Museum invites us to remember. On that day and continuing until Nov. 6, an exhibit called “Sacred Ground: The Rise, Fall and Revival of Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery” will take up residence at the museum. Through a display of telegrams, video, artifacts, historical documents and images from photographers including Carl Juste and C.W. Griffin, the museum will tell the story of the cemetery, its citizens and the Miami they knew.
It’s a necessary tale. As John Allen, the museum’s executive director points out, “I’m a third generation Miamian and I had never heard of this cemetery before.”
He was introduced to it by Malcolm Lauredo, the museum’s director of historic research and lead historian, who himself stumbled across the graveyard years ago on an aimless late night drive. “The first time I was there,” says Allen, “I stepped on a vertebrae, looked inside a casket and had a femur staring up at me coming out of a suit jacket.” It seems the cemetery had become something of an easy mark for grave robbers seeking bones for religious ceremonies.
In that sense, the tale of Lincoln Memorial is not yet a success story, not yet a story of the ragged and unkempt made to shine like new. Yes, the grave robberies are said to have declined, but make no mistake, the place is still a mess.
But if this isn’t a success story, it is a story of progress, as embodied by the cemetery’s self-appointed caretaker, Arthur Kennedy, who, in conjunction with the museum, is slowly reclaiming it from years of neglect. In so doing, they hope to restore to some of Miami’s pioneers something African Americans are too often denied: the dignity of memory.
“Miami, just like a lot of other places in United States history, has sort of been whitewashed,” says Lauredo. “There’s a lot of people who were really cornerstones in shaping what Miami is today: D.A. Dorsey, the first African-American millionaire in Miami. You have Kelsey Pharr, who was a prominent mortician, he founded the first chapter of Boy Scouts for African Americans in South Florida. We have Gwen Cherry, the first African-American woman elected to the Legislature, we have H.E.S. Reeves, who founded the Miami Times. So there’s a lot of luminaries and important Miami pioneers that you don’t talk about — and I think it’s really important that they have representation in the history of the city that they helped found, just as much as Henry Flagler and Julia Tuttle.”
Not that prominent people doing prominent things are the only ones interred here. As noted, segregation forced black people together, both in life and in death. Allen is taken with a group of telegrams the museum unearthed, asking the dean of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to put a certain student on a train home to Miami immediately.
“Her mother had died here in Miami, but ‘Please don’t tell her she’s dead yet. We’ll tell her when she gets here.’ There’s a lot of stuff like that,” he says of the material the museum has amassed. “It’s very intimate. It brings it home. Young children drowning in the Coral Gables canal, sailors that died aboard ships and how they stored the bodies until they could get them home to port. All of a sudden, you’re picturing these people. Some of these houses where these people died, they’re still standing, and they died in 1928, 1929.”
The people buried at Lincoln are not, to be sure, the only ones denied memory. There are other urban cemeteries — indeed, other urban cemeteries in South Florida — where the only caretaker is neglect, and African Americans lie in forgotten repose. Earlier this month, a backhoe operator stumbled upon a femur while working on the site of a new school near Houston.
It turned out to be the final resting place of 95 African Americans, victims of a forced labor prison —de facto slavery — during the Jim Crow era.
Apparently, everybody forgot they were there.
America forgets such things because they are easy to forget. And we forget them because they are necessary to forget, because they give the lie to our national mythology. America has to forget them because otherwise, how can you gaze upon the construction cranes, how can you feel the Jet Ski spray, how can you hear the rustle of the leaves in the palm fronds, in quite the same innocent and oblivious way?
Against the seduction of amnesia, the Coral Gables Museum offers the hard duty of memory, a chapter from a story yet in progress, a tale of what lies in a too-often forgotten place down a too-often forgotten street in a too-often forgotten neighborhood.
This is Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery, final resting place to the millionaire, the lynching victim and the mother of the Tuskegee student. Here, a shopping cart sits abandoned in the weeds. Here, the fence sags under the weight of its years. But here, too, fresh bouquets of red and gold flowers adorn a few of the tombs. And small American flags hang limply in the posts of that tired fence, their faded colors barely stirred by the breeze.
In this cemetery’s prime, blacks and whites were segregated in death. Can it live on?By Andres Viglucci
Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery teems with the dead and a rich profusion of weeds.
Concrete burial vaults, weathered and cracked, lie crammed together on the ground in disordered rows right up to the edge of the bordering streets, as if the overfull old cemetery was about to spill over into the tidy Brownsville neighborhood around it. There is no fence along much of the graveyard’s perimeter and no money for one.
Name plates on most of the vaults are missing, shattered or worn to illegibility. Those that can be made out constitute a roster of ordinary family names: Norton, Hill, Moss, Clark, Henry, Heath, Cope, Wilson, Howard, Hicks and Pride, among others.
Aside from having passed from this earth, they all have something else in common: Everyone buried here was black.
Lincoln Memorial, like at least two other surviving black burial grounds in Miami-Dade County, exemplifies a significant though little-known legacy of racial segregation. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended legal segregation in America, black and white people were separated not just in life, but in death, too.
Today, at Lincoln Memorial and black cemeteries across the South, that historic legacy is imperiled. Sometimes abandoned, or neglected and overgrown if not entirely forgotten, many of these burial grounds are fading from public view and the historical record. Their owners, if ownership can be clearly ascertained, often lack the means to provide proper care and maintenance for the grave sites they’ve inherited. The descendants of the deceased are mostly gone, too, dead or otherwise moved on, so there’s no one around to tend to the graves.
The condition of Lincoln Memorial, resting place for some of Miami’s most prominent Bahamian and African-American pioneers and once among the finest black cemeteries in the South, seems especially acute.
Given scant income from infrequent burials, owner Jessica Williams struggles with upkeep, aided only by a single volunteer groundskeeper. With no fencing and no security, the cemetery is littered with refuse, Santería offerings and discarded drug paraphernalia. Vaults are sometimes broken open by grave robbers, and the skeletal remains inside taken for use in religious rituals or to be sold on the black market.
But there’s hope. The Coral Gables Museum has taken on the cause of Lincoln Memorial. Its staff has organized cleanups, restorations and an exhibition on the cemetery, opening Aug. 3, that features photographs by the Miami Herald’s Carl Juste and C. W. Griffin, as well as artifacts, funeral records and Lincoln Memorial founder Kelsey Pharr’s embalming tools.
Because the burial ledgers Williams was left with when she inherited Lincoln Memorial from a relative are incomplete and in disarray, the museum’s research staff is combing through Pharr’s funeral home records and cross-matching them with cemetery maps to determine the names of people buried in graves whose markers have been lost. The museum’s director of historic research and lead historian, Malcolm Lauredo, hasn’t come up with a precise number of people buried at Lincoln Memorial, but believes it’s “in the thousands.”
The goal of the museum, which focuses on local history and what it calls the “civic arts,” is to draw public attention to Lincoln Memorial’s historic importance, promote its preservation and highlight Pharr’s underappreciated role in early Miami history, Lauredo said.
“Our history has become really whitewashed,” Lauredo said.
Pharr, the first state-licensed black undertaker south of St. Augustine, founded the cemetery in 1923 and ran it until his death in 1964, often burying people unable to afford a funeral at no cost. Pharr is buried at Lincoln Memorial next to his second wife, Josephine, and son Kelsey Jr., a member of the famed vocal group Delta Rhythm Boys.
Also buried at Lincoln Memorial are D.A. Dorsey, the son of former slaves and Miami’s first black millionaire; Gwen Cherry, the first black woman elected to the Florida Legislature; Henry Reeves, founder of Miami’s most important black newspaper, The Miami Times; and Dr. William Chapman, one of Miami’s first black physicians, whose mansion is part of the Booker T. Washington High campus in Overtown. So are dozens of veterans of wars spanning a century, from the Civil War through Vietnam, Lauredo said.
Pharr left Lincoln Memorial to a friend, Elyn Johnson, who kept the cemetery reasonably well maintained until she began to suffer from dementia in the 1990s and it quickly deteriorated. But the business of black cemeteries was by then long in decline, said Miami historian Marvin Dunn, author of “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century.” Integration meant many families could move elsewhere, and they could bury their dead in what used to be white cemeteries, and they did both, he noted.
“People left,” Dunn said. “Cemeteries do well when families of people who are buried there stay local.”
It’s unclear how many black cemeteries existed in Miami-Dade. At least three have been obliterated. In what’s today Allapattah, occupied graves were covered over by a public school and a city fire station, Dunn said.
Another, in Lemon City, was also built over, forgotten for years and accidentally rediscovered in 2009, when construction crews working on the site began digging up bones and personal belongings. Many of those buried there had in fact been moved by Pharr to Lincoln Memorial at the state’s request decades before, but for unknown reasons many also remained in place. Today a portion of the site is occupied by a memorial to the 523 people once buried there.
A third, Silver Green in Goulds in South Miami-Dade, was abandoned decades ago and has virtually disappeared, grown over and most of its grave markers gone.
Two historic black cemeteries survive. Charlotte Jane in West Coconut Grove, owned by the Simpson-Stirrup family, is well known, visible and mostly well kept. Another, Evergreen Memorial Park, four blocks south of Lincoln Memorial, is owned by the Miami Times’ Reeves family. Though walled and mowed, it, too, has suffered from vandalism and lack of security.
The public indifference to the fate of black cemeteries contrasts sharply with that of Pinewood Cemetery, a historic burial ground off today’s Sunset Drive in Coral Gables, where many white Miami pioneer settlers were laid to rest dating back to the late 1800s. Though it was forgotten for decades and many of its grave markers lost or destroyed, activists pushed to save it in 1983. The city built a rock wall around it, paid for cleanup and restoration and planted native species, turning it into a peaceful, green refuge. A Memorial Day service is held at the cemetery every year.
Even as the city’s museum adopts Lincoln Memorial, its fate is a legacy of racial and economic inequities that leave black cemeteries without safeguards, Dunn said. At most white cemeteries, burial insurance, endowments or trusts provide for maintenance in perpetuity. Not so in most black cemeteries, which served a largely impoverished clientele, Dunn said.
Dunn, who will speak at an Oct. 17 symposium on Lincoln Memorial at the Gables museum, said he will call for government support for the cemetery’s renovation, saying the presence there of so many war veterans likely justifies it.
“There is an obligation to take care of this, a public purpose, if for no other reason,” he said.
A caretaker looks for grandfather’s grave — and redemption — in Miami’s lost cemeteryBy Ellis Rua
It was a humid July morning and the unforgiving Miami sun beat down on Arthur Kennedy as he worked. With a machete in one hand and a garden hoe in the other, he chopped away at invasive plants that clung to thick slabs of stone, sending weeds flying through the air until they landed on the parched soil again.
Kennedy, 49, worked alone inside the confines of Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery in Brownsville. The work was dangerous and exhausting. He scaled across the tops of tombs buried in the bush, taking care with each step not to fall inside a crumbling grave.
Kennedy spends more than 60 hours a week at the cemetery for no pay, working odd construction jobs on the side to make money. He is its volunteer caregiver, its protector, its savior. It’s a role he’s had for a little over a year now. On some days, he helps visitors find their loved ones’ graves. On some nights, he guards its grounds from trespassers. Most of the time he wages a war with the weeds, trying to uncover what was once a beautiful burial ground.
Despite its designation as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery is in a massive state of disrepair today. Founded in 1924 by Kelsey Pharr, a renowned funeral director, it was the area’s first black-owned cemetery.
Now, it is the victim of decades of neglect. Vegetation has strangled the area, leaving the elevated tombs of Miami’s prominent black pioneers under a thick blanket of roots, trees and weeds, invisible to the untrained eye. Break-ins and bad weather have reduced tombs to rubble. The ceramic tile nameplates of the deceased on surviving tombs have been smashed.
Behind Kennedy’s toil is a personal determination: He believes that somewhere, beneath all the dirt and foliage and stone, his grandfather lies buried. But he just can’t seem to find him — a common problem experienced by the relatives of those interred at Lincoln Memorial.
“I’m not going to rest until I find him,” Kennedy told the Miami Herald.
His grandfather was his hero.
Kennedy grew up on the crime-ridden streets of Miami’s Allapattah and Overtown neighborhoods in the 1970s with a father who spent most of his time within prison walls and a single mother who worked two jobs. His grandfather, MacArthur Butler, was his only escape. He showed Kennedy a different world.
As Kennedy spoke about the long drives he used to take with his grandfather in his olive 1966 Chevrolet Impala, his dark brown eyes lit up. He felt a sense of pride sitting in the front seat next to his grandfather, a U.S. Army veteran, he said.
Together, they drove west to the Everglades, north to Fort Lauderdale and east to Bayfront Park. Each adventure was accompanied by the music of Muddy Waters.
Kennedy missed his father, but the presence of his grandfather seemed to fill that void.
“It was special to feel wanted,” he said. “It was that hug anybody ever needed in life.”
In December 1978, when Kennedy was 9, MacArthur Butler died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
It was Kennedy’s first experience with death. His mother, Myrna Kennedy, 69, can still recall his sorrow. “He was heartbroken,” she said.
Grief-stricken, Kennedy soon turned to the very streets from which his grandfather had tried to protect him.
Kennedy was seduced by the promise of easy money made on the streets during Miami’s cocaine era, and he became enraptured with material possessions: He coveted cellphones, beepers and customized automobiles that to him evoked a sense of power and stability. He was dealing drugs, and became something of a celebrity among his friends. But Kennedy longed for something he couldn’t put his finger on. The anxiety made him restless, unfocused and impulsive.
His inner demons led him to a life of crime and misfortune. He was a felon, with drug busts, aggravated assault and battery convictions on his record. He ended up spending several years in prison. Kennedy couldn’t shake the loss of his grandfather. His death was always lurking in Kennedy’s mind. He found refuge only in drugs. The next 25 years of his life consisted of run-ins with the police and a battle against his addiction to cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.
“It’s mentally a challenge,” he said. “Either you’re going to deal with it or let it take you over.” During this time, Lincoln Memorial Park had been deteriorating, according to historical accounts. The cemetery’s owner, Elyn Johnson, had worked tirelessly for years to secure funds to maintain the cemetery’s upkeep. But when she was sidelined by dementia, the money stopped coming in. Weeds started to grow, and the cemetery began to crumble and disappear beneath the vegetation.
On April 29, 2017, Kennedy was at a monthly gathering for Brownsville locals at the Graveyard Inn, a bar-restaurant across the street from Lincoln Memorial Park. A friend told him that some of the people in attendance were planning to head to the cemetery for a volunteer cleanup. Kennedy went along.
When he entered the cemetery, on Earth Day no less, Kennedy could not believe his eyes. It had been decades since he had last set foot on its grounds, and he could no longer recognize it. Like many locals from the surrounding area, Kennedy was disgusted.
“I just grabbed a machete and went in,” he said. For the first time in years, Kennedy felt like he was doing the right thing. “We were doing something that was for hope.”
Soon after, the cemetery’s current owner, Jessica Williams, who inherited the cemetery from her late aunt, Johnson, in 2015, gave Kennedy her blessing to become its volunteer caretaker. “He took initiative,” Williams said. She said that Kennedy had a way with people. “He was a leader.”
For Kennedy, who had last stepped foot in the cemetery for the burial of an aunt nearly 40 years before, it was an opportunity to honor his ancestors. And having a full-time caregiver meant relief for Williams: Twenty acres of untamed land and a faltering infrastructure were too much for a single person to handle.
Then, a few months later, Williams received a call from the Coral Gables Museum. The museum was interested in the historical significance of the cemetery.
During his first visit to the cemetery, Malcolm Lauredo, the museum’s director of historic research, was impressed. Kennedy’s knowledge of local history was unmatched, he said.
“I didn’t really understand the scope of the historical significance of the property until I really walked through with Arthur,” Lauredo said.
Since then, through various initiatives including cataloging burial locations and restoring tombs and other cemetery structures, the museum has committed to help preserve Lincoln Memorial Park’s past. Lauredo, Kennedy and Williams are working together to find a sustainable way to revive the cemetery.
It will not be an easy task.
Cemeteries must bury the dead in order to make a profit. Lincoln Memorial Park’s unappealing state and limited space make the cemetery a hard pitch for those looking for a final resting place for their loved ones.
The group has yet to find a solution.
For now, Kennedy works alone in the cemetery, still searching for his grandfather and for closure from his past.
He doesn’t mind the heavy labor. In fact, he finds solace in it. As he tends to the grounds, he senses that the dead are watching over him.
It’s a feeling that brings him peace, he said.
“I know for a fact that my grandfather is definitely proud,” Kennedy said. “I know he is.”
Historic but neglected Miami cemetery to be focus of Coral Gables Museum exhibition
The Coral Gables Museum will be exhibiting “Sacred Ground: The Rise, Fall and Revival of Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery,” beginning Aug. 3. The exhibition will showcase a selection of documents and objects from the archives and grounds of Lincoln Memorial Park for the first time ever. Part of the exhibition, “Caretakers,” is comprised of a photographic essay and documentary video on the project by award-winning photographer Carl Juste of the Miami Herald and photographer C. W. Griffin.
The museum is at 285 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.